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Blacks & the Faith

Brooklyn Diocese Seeks Sainthood for Priest Who Fought Bigotry
The New York Times

Brooklyn, the borough of churches and trees, Walt Whitman and Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand and Mike Tyson, has never lacked for people of distinction — except perhaps in one category.

Nobody from Brooklyn has ever been made a Roman Catholic saint.
But at a special church service on Thursday night, Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn is planning to open what is known as a “canonical inquiry” into the cause of sainthood for a Brooklyn priest, Msgr. Bernard J. Quinn.

Monsignor Quinn, who died in 1940 at age 52, championed racial equality at a time when discrimination against blacks was ubiquitous in America, even inside the Catholic Church. In the Depression-era heyday of the anti-Semitic, pro-Fascist radio broadcasts of the Rev. Charles E, Coughlin, Monsignor Quinn encountered sharp resistance from some fellow priests when he proposed ministering to Brooklyn’s growing population of blacks, many of them fleeing the Jim Crow South or migrating from the poor Caribbean countries.

When Msgr. John L. Belford, an outspokenly antiblack priest in New York, wrote in 1929 in his church newsletter that “negroes should be excluded from this Roman Catholic church if they become numerous,” Monsignor Quinn took pains during the public controversy that followed to state his strong disagreement.

“It seems to me that no church can exclude anyone and still keep its Christian ideals,” he said, according to his obituary in The New York Times. “The Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion and this, plus the fact that church property is tax exempt, ought to mean that anyone can go anyplace to worship.”

The process of canonization can take a long time. The inquiry on behalf of another New Yorker, Cardinal Terence J. Cooke, has been going on since 1984. Pierre Toussaint, the 19th-century Haitian abolitionist, former slave and devout Catholic — who, like Cooke, has been championed by the Archdiocese of New York — has been in line since 1943.

The archdiocese, which includes the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island and several upstate counties, can lay claim to a few saints: Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Rev. Isaac Jogues and several of his fellow martyred missionaries. It has taken up the causes of another dozen potential saints, including Dorothy Day and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

Brooklyn has some connection to at least two other candidates: Bishop Francis X. Ford, a Maryknoll missionary who was born in Brooklyn and died in Chinese custody in 1952; and the Rev. Félix Varela, an early-19th-century human rights advocate born in Cuba who worked in Brooklyn when it was still part of the New York Archdiocese.

But the inquiry on behalf of Monsignor Quinn is the first the Brooklyn diocese, which encompasses that borough and Queens, has started since its creation in 1853, according to the diocese’s spokesman, Msgr. Kieran E. Harrington. Its purpose is to scour the record of the candidate’s priesthood to determine whether he was morally fit for sainthood and whether his ministry attracted many new people to the church.

If Monsignor Quinn’s record passes those tests, the diocese will have to present evidence of at least two miracles attributed to him after his death. The process of verifying such miracles is conducted by a Vatican delegation. The pope makes the final decision on whether to canonize, and when.

Monsignor Quinn, who was born in Newark in 1888, was assigned to the Brooklyn diocese shortly after his ordination. After serving as an Army chaplain in

World War I, he petitioned the Brooklyn bishop for permission to open a church for blacks, who were then being excluded from Catholic services in German, Irish and Italian neighborhoods. But instead, he was sent on a number of less ambitious assignments, said the Rev. Paul W. Jervis, who wrote a 2005 biography of the monsignor, “Quintessential Priest.”

“Let’s just say the cause of black Catholics was not high on the list of the bishop’s priorities at that time,” said Father Jervis, who has been urging sainthood for Monsignor Quinn for several years and is on the diocesan committee that will examine his record.

In 1922, however, with diocesan support, Monsignor Quinn established the first church for black Catholics in Brooklyn, St. Peter Claver, which still exists and counts among graduates of its parochial school the late singer and civil rights activist Lena Horne.

In 1928, he established the diocese’s first orphanage for black children, in a converted farmhouse in Wading River, on Long Island, which was then part of the diocese. The orphanage was destroyed that summer in an arson fire, attributed at the time to the Ku Klux Klan, which was active in eastern Long Island and had openly opposed the building of the orphanage. After being rebuilt, the orphanage was set on fire a second time that same year.
But Monsignor Quinn rebuilt it a second time, this time in concrete and brick, according to a 1929 article in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle with the headline: “New Fireproof Orphanage Will Defy Incendiary.”

The building, known as the Little Flower Orphanage in honor of his patron saint, St. Thérèse, remains the base of operations for the diocese’s Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York program, which provides a variety of services in Queens and Brooklyn and on Long Island.

Veronica Quinn, a grandniece of Monsignor Quinn, said family lore painted him as a beloved uncle and brother, but gave no hint of the origins of his vision of racial equality.


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